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Murder in the mines

On 13 May 2014 Turkey experienced what is likely to be the biggest industrial accident in its history.

More than 1000 mine workers are still reported to be trapped following an explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, Manisa province, western Turkey.

301 were killed in on Tuesday 13 May in one of the worst industrial accidents in Turkish history.


Article from Equaltimes by Kıvanç Eliaçık,

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At the last count, 245 workers at the privately-owned mine were confirmed dead. One of those killed was 15-year-old Kemal Yıldız, whose death has drawn attention to the issue of unregistered, as well as underaged, mine workers.

By the time you read this, that figure will undoubtedly be much higher.

As the families of the miners wait anxiously in front of the collapsed pit and the hospital, desperate to hear news about their loved ones, the authorities still haven’t released any accurate information about what caused the disaster.

But the Soma tragedy isn’t Turkey’s first. Turkey has the third highest rate of deaths at work for miners in the world. Some 13,000 miners were involved in accidents in 2013 and 1,308 miners have been killed in workplace accidents since 2000.

Turkey’s worst mining disaster took place in 1992, when 263 miners were killed near Zonguldak on the Black Sea but the death toll from Soma is likely to surpass that.

 Corrosive effects of privatisation

A district in the heartland of Turkey’s mining industry, the residents of Soma know as well as anyone the corrosive effect those decades of privatization has had on workers’ safety.

Other industries have also seen a rise in workplace accidents. In fact, between 2002 and 20111, there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of workplace accidents in Turkey.

The widescale use of subcontracting is one of the reasons for this increase, as is the lack of occupational health and safety measures in the workplace and inadequate labour inspection by the authorities.
In order to draw the government’s attention to the issue, Özgür Özel, a member of parliament from the main opposition party CHP, recently proposed a parliamentary inquiry into the high number of occupational accidents and poor security measures in the Soma district. The inquiry was vetoed by the ruling party.

Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S., or Soma Holdings, owns the coal mine where the deadly accident took place.

Turkey’s labour ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March this year, and was found to be in line with all current legislation.

But if that’s the case, why don’t we know something as simple as the exact number of workers who were in the mine at the time of the accident?

Not only does this raise the question of the approved technology but it also highlights problems with the inspection itself.

Soma Holdings is a ‘redevance’ company run by a licensing system. Before Soma Holdings acquired the mine in 2005, the cost of coal per ton was US$130 –US$140 but the company slashed the price to US$23.8 after the acquisition. Most of the miners are either casual workers or they barely earn the minimum wage.

It’s clear that the company has simply transferred the profits made from its mines to the construction sector – Soma Holdings also owns one of Turkey’s tallest buildings, the Spine Tower in Istanbul.

 “Accidents are usual”

Government officials, local authorities and the mainstream media are currently trying to underplay the death toll at Soma while attacking anyone those who have taken to the streets in protest.

In a press conference just 24 hours after the tragedy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said “these accidents are usual.” This is unjust and totally unacceptable, even though it betrays his contempt for workers. Following a disaster in 2010 where 30 miners were killed, he described the deaths as part of the “profession’s fate”.

Just a week ago, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security organised an International Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Symposium. The Minister Faruk Çelik bragged about the improvements of OHS and security measures in Turkey, and accused the trade unions of not doing enough to improve the situation.

Let’s not forget that on 1 May this year, the authorities blocked all the streets and prevented trade unionists from raising the issue OHS publicly at May Day events.

They didn’t stop us then and they won’t stop us now.

Yesterday, trade unions all over the country have organised protest actions against the Soma tragedy. Protestors are being brutally attacked by riot police with tear gas and water cannons but they won’t be intimidated.

Today, ITUC and ETUC members DISK and KESK, together with TMMOB (the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects) and TTB (the Turkish Medical Association) will go on general strike.

Unionists, activists, students and workers will gather in Taksim Square and in front of the Soma Holdings headquarters to remind company bosses of their duty of care and to remind government officials of their responsibility to protects workers lives.

We are also calling on the government to ensure the implementation of health and safety legislation and to end the practice of subcontracting which leads to a violation of workers’ rights.

We’ve had enough of a system that puts profits before people, and that sees the health and safety of its workers as an unwelcome cost rather than a fundamental obligation.

If the necessary and appropriate inspections had been carried out in Soma, those 230-odd miners would still be alive today.

For the men who are still trapped underground we try stay to hopeful but as we mourn for the dead workers, we are determined that this is the last time we will do so.